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Christmas tree 2014With Christmas quickly approaching we had to find a tree. There was urgency because our daughter and son-in-law were coming over tomorrow to help decorate. You can’t decorate something that isn’t there. Off we headed into the woods in search of “the tree” it had to be the perfect tree. Each years tree was in competition with former years to be the perfect tree.

Scott spotted a beautiful tree as soon as we entered the cutting area. It was uniformly shaped and frosted with new fallen snow though the snow didn’t cause any branches to droop. It was just right and we were short on time. We had many things to accomplish.

Scott downed the tree with just enough struggle to make it worthwhile. He had the tree loaded in record time and we headed back home pleased with ourselves.

The pleasure was short lived when we discovered that the tree we choose was not a soft “friendly Fir” but a pokey “spiny Spruce”. Trying to settle the tree into the stand required thick gloves and long sleeves so as to not draw blood.

It was painful to admit we had brought home a beautiful but dangerous tree. But even more painful was decorating it. Each reach into its private space had to be calculated. I now have personal experience regarding how they acquired the name “needles” for with each ornament placement I drew back a wounded hand sometimes even drawing blood.

This experience was a vivid example of attempting to survive the holiday season when I was deep in my grief. Each time I would attempt to enter into a tradition it pricked my heart. Tears betrayed my wound causing me to retreat back into my protective shell. Christmas hurt but it wasn’t Christmas that caused the tears, it was memories of Christmas’ past.

When I look away from the glittering lights and packages under the tree and focus on the Christmas nativity 2014nativity scene, the reason for the season, my joy returns. Christmas began in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth was page one of the plan of redemption. Focusing on the true reason for this season I became able to celebrate.

What I celebrated was not the gift giving, carol singing or cookie baking but the birth of Jesus. Jesus is the man of sorrows acquainted with grief but first he had to be born.

Christmas '03Jesus’ life and death give me the assurance that I will be not only united with Jesus but reunited with my children in heaven. This is what I celebrate.


Cari Zorno



Christmas feastBefore I even sit down at the Christmas table my senses are overwhelmed by memories. Of our 5 senses the strongest memory keeper is smell. I can smell the ham with a brown sugar glaze just how my mother-in-law made it, The smells bring back the bitter sweet memories I have of helping her in the kitchen. The tears well up but I push them back, it is too early to get teary.

Gathering around the table which is decorated beautifully with red and green ornaments, and evergreen boughs tied in bright red bows we light three candles, one for each of my children who died over the last three years.

Bowing our heads in prayer we thank God for all the blessing we stop to light three candles. With his voice cracking with emotion my husband states “As we light these candles let’s share things we remember about Josh, Beth, and Chris.” Each child had a favorite scent or flavor. Josh loved cinnamon, Beth vanilla, and for Chris it was Monster drinks so we settled on citrus. I bought scented candles for each to burn throughout the day.

In the pause that follows I want to share but I cannot say a word for the tears have tightened my throat. Instead I reach into a bag I had brought and pull out three small animals. The first is a small raccoon Josh’s favorite animal, then a frog for Beth, and lastly a giraffe for Chris. I gently place these on the table and in my own way include them in our celebration.

I miss their smiles, hugs and laughter. I can’t keep back the tears but I have the assurance from God that someday we will again sit at a feast together, the wedding feast of the lamb.

Sitting down I first reach for my napkin to dry the tears then reach for Scott’s hand, the circle continues until all hands are held around the table. We bow our heads as Scott says grace over our meal.

Suggestions for the Holiday table:

  • Leave an empty seat, our loved one is gone but not forgotten
  • Scented candles for each family member who is no longer here
  • Stuffed animals to represent loved ones

Christmas is the celebration of Heaven coming to earth and the wedding feast a celebration after we enter Heaven.

What do you now do different with a loved one gone?




Christmas Countdown – The Tree

Family time decorating the tree 2003

Family time decorating the tree 2003

We are now within  weeks of Christmas. Friends have asked me what we have done to prepare our home for Christmas. I would like to share some of our new traditions in hopes they will help you during this bitter-sweet time of the year.

It may take two weeks to get our tree up and decorated because of our schedules but it now has a prominent place in our living room. We have dressed it with glass balls, heirloom ornaments and new sparkly ones. We have the handmade ornaments with pictures of the kids growing up and ones bought on family vacations to spark memories.

The new tradition we brought to our tree are ornaments which represent each of our loved ones who are spending Christmas with Jesus. Josh has a soldier, Beth a snowboarder, and Chris has two – a camping tent and snowboard boot. When we hung these we told stories and shed a few tears. They are with us in our hearts as we look at our tree.

There are a myriad of stories depicting where the tradition of the Christmas tree began.

  • It is a Conifer which is green year round, even when the other trees seem to have died. To me it represents eternal life and stringing it with lights is like bringing the stars inside.
  • The Vikings saw the evergreen tree as a symbol of strength. It survived the long, dark, cold winters. They brought this reminder into their homes. When things got really tough and they felt as though they couldn’t survive they would see the tree and remember to be strong.

What a great symbol for us who celebrate a ‘blue’ Christmas. Grief is similar to winter, it too is long, dark, and cold but God wants us to remember He is with us. Through Him we can be “strong and courageous’ (Joshua 1:9) while leaning on Christ. One reason He came was to “bind up the brokenhearted”.

My new favorite “flower” is the Poinsettia. It is one of few flowers which will only bloom in the dark. I feel my sorrow may have darkened my world but God brought forth flowers, beauty out of ashes.

May you feel God’s strength wrapped around you this Christmas season.

What will you do differently with your Christmas tree to remember your loved one this year?



One key to understanding the uniqueness of grief for teens are the many changes they are going through just being an adolescent. Their bodies are changing radically physically, emotionally and sexually. For some it is hard for their wardrobes to keep up. While their bodies ache from the physical changes and the heart aches from loss, life can be overwhelming.

                Teens need adults who are willing to come alongside them, spend time with them, listen to them, and then listen some more.

                Teens need adults who are willing to come alongside them, spend time with them, listen to them, and then listen some more.

What they are feeling is normal during grief:

  • It is normal to be forgetful, the mind so busy it can’t be slowed down.
  • It is normal to feel constantly exhausted even with hours of sleep.
  • It is normal to feel confused and lost in familiar places.

It is important that they know it is normal. For them these feelings may seem to last forever, but again, they need to be reminded – it is temporary.  Just like growing pains, the grief will subside. They will heal.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Creating a journal in which they can express their thoughts and feelings can be very helpful. Use an inexpensive composition book and encourage them to cover it with their own drawings or pictures, phrases, and words cut from magazines that remind them of their loved ones.

This journal becomes a place to write their thoughts, poems, stories, and pictures of what they were feeling at a given time during their grief journeys. The outside of the journal represents not only how unique their loved ones were but also their own uniqueness. It is good for them to go back to these journals and see their progress over time. It is healing to see in their own words how far they have come, that feelings are temporary and one thing constant is change.

Too Dark Too Long

“The tunnel feels too dark and goes on forever” If the sadness is deep for a long time, meaning several months, please encourage them to speak to a trained counselor. Depression locks teens into believing their emotional pain is a permanent state with no way out. They need help escaping this trap. Chronic depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, which need to be addressed immediately. Trained counselors can help themlight-end-tunnel-18817673[1] refocus and lift them from this darkness.

Suicide warning signs:

  • mood swings or sudden personality changes, such as going from outgoing to withdrawn or well-behaved to rebellious.
  • lose interest in day-to-day activities,
  • neglect his or her appearance
  • show big changes in eating or sleeping habits

If you notice any of these signs take it seriously. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Seek our help for them. Find the suicide hotline number for your area, contact Second Wind Fund for counseling assistance.

“I was emotionless and blank. I would just go back to my barracks room and sit in the dark and just listen to music or play video games ‘cause I could let out some of the suppressed emotions. It took a long time to talk to anybody about it. The only person I can remember talking to was my fiancé. Having someone to talk to about it helped.” Brian, age 16

Death leaves a hole, a huge gaping hole, in the teen’s life. They are reminded of that hole at every turn: the empty chair at the table, the undisturbed bed, the unoccupied desk or locker with memorials all around them. Our culture tells us to replace the loss, remove the chair, and fill the hole. God says to weep with those who weep, “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15b).

You, their helpers, give them the courage to embrace the loss and walk through the grief, not run away from or bury it. As helpers you walk with them through the dark places and help them to identify if those places get too dark or last too long and professional help is needed.


grieving teen   Personality types respond differently under the stress of grief. Extroverts who are stressed tend to pull inward and become uncharacteristically quiet. A person who is sullen and detached might be an extrovert under stress. Introverts who are stressed tend to “lash out” or “freak out.” A person who is animated and speaking out may be an introvert experiencing stress. (Schneider and Prudhomme, 2014).

When teens experience the death of a close friend, this death may be felt as deeply as and sometimes even more deeply than the death of a family member. Youth often spend more time with their peers, making those relationships extremely close. Each relationship is unique, so we cannot expect grief to be the same for all. Grief doesn’t make sense; sometimes a grieving teen may feel disconnected, like a third party watching from a distance or the mind may go into hyper-drive yet be unable to connect the thoughts.

While everyone will walk through sorrow in different ways and at varying speeds and depths of feeling, the important focus is to go through it, not around it by avoiding or numbing the feelings through self-medication of drugs or alcohol.

Feelings need to get expressed somehow. Expression of those feelings may take the form of written, drawn, or spoken words, but for some the feelings need to be put into action. This can be done with dance, hiking, running, just to name a few. Grief that is not expressed cannot heal. Bottled up or buried grief may manifest in anger or bitterness, which can be harmful to the hurting teen and to others. Teens need to be encouraged to be bold enough to share their feelings in a way most comfortable for them.


Relationship is first about sharing the mundane before it graduates to sharing deep inner thoughts and feelings. Give the relationship time, day after day, week after week. Grief is a very long process; there will be lots of opportunities for sharing if you make the time.

tea time photo

“It’s not easy to lose someone you were close to, and it’s not easy to open up. I wish someone would have pushed me harder to talk about it. I’m still finding it hard to deal with, and I can’t seem to find the words to describe how I felt.  I felt alone and abandoned, not because I was alone but because I wouldn’t let anyone in and help.  I wouldn’t ask for help, I wouldn’t ask for guidance, but I wanted it….. I needed it. Trying to figure it out on your own…. it doesn’t help. I spent most of my time by myself in the corner or playing basketball by myself at youth group.  Nathan and Shelby were the ones that I would open up to because they came in and saw me and would take time out of their day and make it a point to say hi and talk if I wanted or just shoot some hoops.” Brian, age 16 

Grief is the realization that an important piece is missing in the puzzle of life. Like a puzzle, each piece plays an important part in telling the story. When a piece that once was there is now missing, it is difficult to get beyond that hole. Teens will search for replacement and meaning to the “missing piece.” Teens try to connect what once was with what is now, and it does not connect; there is a hole. This is where you come in to guide them through the unwelcome new reality and the importance of grieving in a healthy way.

Photo by The Art of York Berlin


It doesn’t matter if the death is a grandparent, aunt, uncle, parent, child, sibling, or a friend, society does not usually prepare us for loss. If you are prepared, you are grave stone photoamong the few. In decades past, when a loved one neared death, he or she was taken into the family home until the time came. There was time to seek and give forgiveness, say final goodbyes, and extend love. This is rarely done anymore.

I feel that death in present day America has been white washed. When grandparents age to the point of needing constant care, they are frequently placed in assisted living, then into nursing homes. We seldom face death as a family and even more rarely experience grieving as a family. Less and less we have the older generation teaching the younger generations how to grieve by example.

This has left us in a desolate place without mentors, unaware of what constitutes healthy grieving, and unsure where to find the answers.

For most teens the deaths they experience are sudden. They hang out with friends after chemistry class on Friday only to be faced with an empty stool in lab on Monday. No closure, lots of regrets, and few answers. Where do they turn for help? Most often they turn to adult and peer friends. We need to be ready and equipped to handle the complexity of their grief needs.

When the death is sudden, the lack of experience in adolescence is amplified. When I was thrown into grief, the only prior grief I had walked through was the death of pets. Suddenly I not only needed to learn how to grieve for myself, but I also felt a burden to teach by example how to grieve to my surviving children, their friends, as well as my deceased children’s friends. I began to devour books on grief written by those who have been there.

Photo by Talusss

Photo by Talusss

“NO! It can’t be true!” The Shock of Death

pain photo Grief is a common experience. It is not only an emotional experience of tears, sadness, and emptiness but a physical one as well manifesting in forgetfulness, restlessness, and exhaustion. Teens don’t have the coping skills that adults have acquired, and the brain is not fully formed until they are 24-26 years old. Keep that in mind when I use the term “teen.”  In Tattooed by Grief  I am specifically addressing the grief of an 11-24 year old after the death of a loved one or close friend.

Experiencing the death of a loved one struck me straight between the eyes and laid me flat. Nowhere in my education was I offered Grief 101. I was unprepared, without a clue as to how to grieve, how long it would take before I could move forward, which feelings were okay and which were not. I thought I was going crazy. I didn’t know where to turn for answers either. I found myself alone on a desolate island; the silence was deafening, the loneliness paralyzing, even though I was surrounded by the busyness of life.

The vast majority of people will experience the death of a loved one before they die. I don’t know about you, but I do not remember a single death of a classmate from K-12. Currently there are teens in my two local high schools that have tattooed dates on their arms of friends–yes, that is plural friends–who have died. Mind you, I live in a rural area, not a crowded city. There is a need to bring God’s healing and hope into their lives. It is time for parents, youth leaders, and friends to come alongside teens to bring the hope and healing of Christ into their lives. It is time we learn what is “normal” in grief.  This is why I have written this book.

Meaning Behind the Art – 3

tattoo by Laely ear          Grief introduces heart pain at an entirely new level. The finality of death carves out a huge hole in the heart that can physically ache. Just as loss of a close loved one tattoos grief on the heart, some teens choose to display it as body art. Both tattoos and grief are permanent. Yes, they both may hidden, but both become part of the teen’s identity and leave a lasting mark. Both have a story to tell.  Grief changes people, a tattoo can mark that change.

  “My emotional world changed forever last summer. Now, my body has changed forever, too. I wear my tattoos proudly, symbols of my mom’s pain, of the strength she had to muster, of the catharsis I sought in the first year I’ve spent without her.” Cara.

“Getting memorial tattoos is often a ritual. We know about the importance of rituals in grief work. Many folks go to the tattoo parlor with friends or family which builds the sense of community. Just as grief hurts, getting a tattoo is physically painful. In time grief softens but it is always a part of you. Tattoos itch and burn as they heal. The skin softens. The healing of the tattoo is a process just like grief. And when a tattoo is healed, it becomes a part of you.  The tattoo is a symbol of the continuing bond the bereaved has with the deceased.  The deceased not only lives on in the griever’s heart but also on their skin.

            Memorials tattoos can play an important part in the grief process. They open up the conversation to telling the story. Tattoos mark the change that has occurred, give voice to the loss and help maintain a continuing bond.”  Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Bereavement Center Blog. By Dscowan. June 10, 2013 Hospice of the Western Reserve

The tattoo of grief holds deep meaning, it becomes part of the identity, and it will soften over time and is permanent, though the intense feelings are temporary. Just as the grief itself holds deep meaning, and though permanent, its intensity fades into part of the art of who the teen is and will be for the rest of their lives.